If you think ‘bossware’ surveillance culture in the workplace is new, think again | John Naughton

  • November 18, 2023
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The rise of intrusive software that lets employers monitor workers’ every move is part of ruthless corporate mindset, but its origins go back to 1900s scientific management theories

“There are,” F Scott Fitzgerald once observed, “no second acts in American lives.” Except when there are. Exhibit A in this connection is Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), the founder of a religion originally called “scientific management” and now colloquially known as Taylorism. Its founder believed that there was no such thing as skilled work, only “work”, and that all work could be analysed the same way. His idea, set out in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), was that every worker should be trained into new working habits “until he continually and habitually works in accordance with scientific laws, which have been developed by some one else”, such as managers or time-and-motion experts.

The formula could be boiled down to this: stopwatch plus coercion minus trade unions, and in an age of mass production, it created the world memorably satirised by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times. The management guru Peter Drucker once wrote that Taylor should be ranked with Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as one of the “makers of the modern world”.

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